Nearly three-quarters of business leaders responding to a National Association of Manufacturers’ Survey in 2023 believe that attracting and retaining quality talent is their biggest business challenge.

The gap between job openings and unemployed workers continues to move beyond gap to chasm with 9.6 million job openings and 5.8 million unemployed workers at the end of June, 2023. Even if everyone who is unemployed accepted a job – there would still be nearly 4 million unfilled positions. Worse yet, when employed, according to Gallup’s most recent study only 31% of workers in the US felt “engaged” at work, while in Europe the percent was a dangerously low 13%. Positive engagement has a direct correlation to retaining and attracting workers.

The issue of engagement often arises when we perform Voice of the Employee (VOE) studies for manufacturing clients. We’ve asked VOE participants “what exactly does ‘engaged’ mean?” Their answers come down to some fundamental concepts. An engaged employee responds to sincerity. Work needs to be open and honest – a two-way street. Not just conversationally, but with actions. Employees define feeling engaged as being empowered to make decisions, feeling valued, and believing their actions matter. Embed these values into your culture and your hiring process to find and develop the best talent available.

Another key issue we often encounter is that there are big gaps in perception between leadership and production roles. For example, in one instance, we asked the Net Promoter Score question of “How likely would you be to recommend working at our company to a family member or friend?” Leadership and corporate staff provided a NPS of 61% while the manufacturing sites employees scored a concerningly low 4%. When we compared the executive cohort vs. plant employees, the disparity was even greater: 75% for executives and -5% for plant employees. NPS scores can range from +100 to -100, but an 80% difference in perception is a hard one to bridge.

That gap was not an anomaly. In another study, results were comparable: 66% NPS when rated by executives and -11% NPS rated by production workers. Another 77% gap.

We discovered there was not only a gap in perception, but a gap in communication and motivation.

Making the Shift

Identifying the key issues that matter the most to employees helps you set a baseline. And, as many of our studies show, it’s not all about the pay and the benefits. There are alternative values that matter to employees as much – or sometimes even more – than a paycheck. Our VOE engagements document that “feeling valued” is at the top of the list of wants by almost all employees – regardless of their role or level in the company. Our studies show that most employees just want to be able to perform at a higher level and are often frustrated by their lack of control. When direct reports believe their immediate boss is too controlling, they lose their passion to individually contribute.

Enabling teams – particularly in manufacturing settings – to make quick, decisive decisions about their work takes strategic change management. The top-down management style used for so many years on the factory floor doesn’t work in today’s world. Our research shows that executives and managers should be more direct and open about the company’s mission and what customers value most about working with them.

Our work also reveals that most companies are lacking (or are perceived to be lacking) in individual employee growth and development. Career paths aren’t just for executives; they’re likely desired by everyone in your organization. Our VOE studies show that most employees don’t feel adequately informed about where the company is going, so they have no way of understanding or appreciating career opportunities. Adjust your mindset from “Career Path” to “Success Path” for both employee and company growth.

The five questions you should ask every employee at least once a year through a Voice of the Employee Anonymous Survey:

  1. What do you like most about your job?
  2. What do you like least about your job?
  3. Describe what “success” means to you personally.
  4. What do you think the top 2-3 barriers are that are keeping you from achieving the success you’d like to have?
  5. How likely are you to recommend working in our company to a friend or family member? Why (or why not)?

Pro-Tip: only use the identifying factors of role, department, and place (if multiple offices/plants)

Analyze responses by role, department, and facility. Use the responses to build an employee-centric organization. Implement tactics and tools to address the biggest concerns that are impacting talent retention and growth. You must ask – then listen – then act.

“On what high-performing companies should be striving to create: A great place for great people to do great work.” - Marilyn Carlson, former CEO of Carlson Companies